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  • Fan sentiment aside, iconic quarterbacks—from Montana and Marino to Peyton and Romo—almost never leave their first team under happy circumstances. Eli Manning may just be the latest in a long line of messy franchise QB divorces
By Conor Orr
November 30, 2017

Now that all the blind yelling and screaming has subsided (present company included), here’s the reality on the Eli Manning front: Moving on—or even thinking about moving on—from a franchise quarterback is a messy proposition. Teams rarely do it right, and to expect the Giants to be different is to buy into a modern NFL fairytale.

The Giants’ treatment of Eli pleased no one. People who already hated coach Ben McAdoo and wanted him fired believed that McAdoo acted alone in benching a franchise icon. They freaked out. People who interpreted ownership’s silence throughout this miserable season as complacency, then watched as it green-lit the benching of a franchise icon, freaked out. People who wanted to see Davis Webb, and Davis Webb only, freaked out. It may be too much for people to accept that NFL teams’ decisions are like much else in their own lives: often uncontrollable collisions of nebulous forces beyond their comprehension.

The Giants, meanwhile, were reminded this week that every team pays an emotional fan tax when it comes to quarterbacks, and that tax gets higher the more the QB means to a franchise. In making a decision they felt was best for the team, the Giants sidelined a player in whom their loyal supporters had a deep emotional investment, compounded over 14 years.

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That’s the risk with every iconic quarterback. The bigger the name, the bigger the price to be paid when it’s time to part company. For perspective on Eli and the Giants, consider other instances where teams have, in some way, bungled the end of a legendary quarterback’s tenure:

Tony Romo and the Cowboys, 2017: Romo’s made-for-television I Support Dak speech as he recovered from a back injury during the 2016 season was wonderful, but hardly ended the issue. By the close of Dak Prescott’s 13-3 rookie campaign, NFL Network was reporting that Romo had distanced himself from the “Dak” coaches and players in the Cowboys building. It took Jerry Jones forever to release Romo, and by the time he actually last April, the erstwhile QB had locked in on broadcasting as the next career move. As Dallas flounders in 2017, there is likely a growing number of fans who wish Romo were still under center and are sore about how it all worked out.

Peyton Manning and the Colts, 2012: After Manning missed the entire 2011 season following a series of surgeries on his neck, the Colts were faced with a decision: Pay their QB icon a $28 million bonus, or part ways with the player who had brought Indianapolis a Super Bowl championship and almost was single-handedly responsible for revitalizing the city’s downtown. Jim Irsay and the Colts, sitting on the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, chose the latter; Manning said a tearful goodbye, then landed in Denver, where he went on the win another Super Bowl. The Colts, who took Andrew Luck with that No. 1 pick,  are now in the process of messing up yet another quarterback situation. Meanwhile in October a statue of No. 18 was unveiled outside Lucas Oil Stadium, standing as a permanent Band-Aid of sorts on the Manning-Colts separation.

Brett Favre and the Packers, 2008: The Packers icon played his final years in Green Bay with an heir apparent waiting in the wings, as the team drafted Aaron Rodgers in 2005. Favre pondered retirement after the 2006 season but returned in ’07 to lead Green Bay to the brink of the Super Bowl. The following March he retired in a tearful ceremony, only to change his mind as the 2008 preseason approached, intimating that he’d felt pressured by the Packers to retire. In July 2008 Favre asked the Packers to release his rights, when they didn’t, he awkwardly turned up in Green Bay on the first day of camp, whereupon he and the team finally decided to part ways for good. Favre was traded to the Jets and played for them in 2008, retired again, then signed to play with Minnesota in 2009. He held a grudge. “After I didn’t go back to the Packers, I wanted to play for anyone who would play the Packers,” Favre said in his episode of A Football Life. “Minnesota played them twice.” The rift between Favre and the Packers wasn’t really healed until his return to Lambeau Field in the summer of 2015 for his induction into the Packers Hall of Fame.

Troy Aikman and Cowboys, 2001: “As great as the first half of my career was, the back half was just as frustrating,” Aikman said in his Football Life. He added: “All these people thought I got out of the game because of head injuries. Concussions had absolutely nothing to do with my retirement. Ultimately the reason I retired after 12 years was because I felt like I had worked hard to develop some level of credibility and respect within this game, and I felt like that was being jeopardized by decisions that were being made beyond my control within the organization. And I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.” Aikman had just one winning record in his final four years, during which he played for three head coaches—Barry Switzer (1997), Chain Gailey (1998-99) and Dave Campo (2000). Aikman talked at length about the overwhelming stress of feeling like he was running the show by himself. There were countless coaches the Cowboys could have put in his lap to make his final years productive and enjoyable.

Dan Marino and the Dolphins, 2000: Marino was saddled with Jimmy Johnson for his final four seasons in what seemed like an arranged marriage, as the two would continually swat away the others’ play-call ideas. In his 17th season, 1999, Marino suffered through an injury-marred campaign, and in what would be his final game, he didn’t play in the second half—a 62-7 loss to the Jaguars in the playoffs. Amid reports that he might not be the starter if he chose to return to the Dolphins for 2000, Marino retired that March. In hindsight, what’s more palatable: dropping Marino for Damon Huard and Jim Druckenmiller, or benching Eli Manning for Geno Smith and Davis Webb? The Dolphins still haven’t gotten over it; they’ve had 18 starting quarterbacks in the 18 seasons since Marino left.

Joe Montana and the 49ers, 1993: For four seasons, the Niners’ Super Bowl hero played with Steve Young—acquired after the USFL’s collapse—looming behind him, one of the more awkward QB situations in NFL history. Fate intervened in the 1991 preseason when Montana suffered an injury to his throwing elbow, which sidelined him for nearly two seasons. He made a cameo comeback in the 1992 regular-season finale, but by then the Niners had become Young’s team, and Montana forced a trade to the Chiefs in the spring of 1993.

An interesting contemporary tidbit from The New York Times:

When Montana was conducting a search for a new team over the last month, there was a heavy backlash from fans in the Bay area, and the 49ers—in an apparent public-relations ploy—suddenly started an all-out campaign to bring Montana back.

On Sunday, they named him their “designated” starter ahead of the league’s most valuable player, Steve Young. But Montana, believing the 49ers were insincere, turned them down. He had asked to be traded to Kansas City, who had already agreed with Montana on a three-year, $10 million contract—worth $4 million in 1993 and $4 million in 1994. “Both teams are pleased that the matter has reached a conclusion on terms that they feel are fair and reasonable,” said 49ers President Carmen Policy, who made tonight’s deal reluctantly.


The reality is, legendary quarterbacks rarely go out the way they or the fans would hope. Sometimes it’s because of subpar ownership; sometimes it’s injuries or personal issues. Eli Manning is still healthy enough to polish off his narrative, whether that be in New York with new coaching and management next year, or in Denver or Jacksonville. If it is the end for him in New York, he’s in good company—another QB icon parting on less than happy terms.

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